Be sure to tune in to Sportsnet Connected and Hockeycentral on Friday, Oct. 17th to see Daren Millard’s interview with NHLPA executive director Paul Kelly.
Paul Kelly has been executive director the National Hockey League Players Association for less than a year, but he already has formed some strong opinions on how the game should approach its business.
- There should be at least one more franchise in Canada
- Expansion – or relocation – to Europe makes sense
- Jim Balsillie should be an NHL owner
- New players should wear visors
And the decision whether to re-open the current collective bargaining agreement (CBA) at the end of the current season remains the proverbial elephant in the room.
Hockeycentral’s Daren Millard recently sat down with the 53-year-old former Boston prosecutor and raised those issues and more.
Hockeycentral: When you look back on your first year on the job, what are you proudest of? What is your most significant accomplishment?
Kelly: I think it’s a little too early to talk about accomplishments. I’m proud of the fact we’re beginning to start to unify the players, get them active; bring a little solidarity back to the association. Our guys have lived through a tough few years here with the lockout and the aftermath of the lockout. And job one for us is to make sure the players understand why the association is necessary, why it’s relevant, why they should pay attention, and why they should care as a group. I think we’ve also struck the right chord with the league in terms of the professional relationship and trying to work together in a constructive way while still protecting the rights of the players.
Hockeycentral: How do you balance working with the National Hockey League, but trying to bond these players together without creating any type of adversarial feeling with the NHL?
Kelly: I come from the job of being a trial lawyer and we used to battle hard in court with all the lawyers when the stakes were very high; a lot of times people’s lives. And we always prided ourselves on leaving what we did in the battle in the courtroom and keeping a professional relationship outside the courtroom with our adversaries. And I kind of view this job the same way. The league understands that I have a job to do, that I have to protect the rights of the players. And I will take hard stands for the players, but we will do it in a very constructive and professional manner and I think we’ve done that. There are a number of instances where we worked together well with the league. In other instances we’ve taken a hard stand and strongly disagreed with the league and pushed back on a number of initiatives, but we’ve done it in a very positive and professional manner and at this point I’m happy that we’ve set the right tone.
Hockeycentral: When the lockout ended it was viewed as a massive victory for the league in getting the hard cap. Do you think you’ve been helped by the unexpected rise in salaries in the way money has been injected and the cap has increased?
Kelly: I think we’ve been helped by a number of factors. We’ve been helped by the fact we have an influx of two or three classes in a row of terrific young players. We have the benefit of having the Crosbys and the Ovechkins and the Staals come into the league at the right time. So a new excitement and a new energy level got injected into the league. I think we’ve been helped by the strong Canadian dollar; we’ve been helped by strong Canadian franchises. I think we’ve helped the league by doing a better job in certain areas. I think the Winter Classic is a good example. Some of the other marketing initiatives that the league has engaged in have been helpful. I think our sport has bounced back better than most people anticipated from the lockout and the players have been the beneficiaries of that.
Hockeycentral: What do you think is your toughest challenge right now?
KELLY: We’re looking ahead at a CBA which may get terminated at the end of this season. It could get terminated three years from now, four years from now. I think the principle job that I have is to make sure we have a new CBA when the end of the current CBA comes that is fair for the players, that protects the rights of the players, that is good for the fans and for the business of the sport. I think we have to be mindful of the climate that we’re in at the time. But it’s clear that the most important part of my job is to look at the CBA issue and make sure that we can have a good quality CBA in place, hopefully without losing any portion of a season. That requires beginning a conversation about those kinds of critical issues well in advance of when that CBA terminates.
Hockeycentral: Free agency occurs sooner than it ever used to, salaries are up, how do you not say the CBA is fair?
KELLY: It’s not up to me to make that call. I mean, I can give advice and guidance. This is the Players Association and that means the players have to make those calls. We’ll begin our fall tour (Oct. 15). We’ll take it out to every team and player and the players will decide whether or not to continue to play under this existing CBA. You’re right, a lot of things have broken favourably for the players: the average salary is up over $2 million; free agency (eligibility) is down from 31 to 27, or you can also become a free agent if you’ve played seven consecutive seasons, so an 18-year-old can become a free agent at 25. There are a number of aspects to the CBA that have been better for the players than perhaps was first appreciated.
Hockeycentral: What don’t you like about then?
KELLY: I don’t like the fact the players don’t have a say in expansion or relocation of teams and don’t benefit from that if that in fact does happen. I think we need to make changes to the disciplinary system in our league. Colin Campbell (NHL director of hockey operations) is a passionate guy and does a good job, but it’s a very tough job. I think there is a better way to do it then we do at the present time. What happens in our business is that whenever there is an incident, Colin Campbell gets lobbied by any number of parties. He gets lobbied by the general manager of the team of the victim player, the team of the aggressor player; other teams because they have an interest in whether a guy plays or doesn’t play. The system, it seems to me, gets muddled and you’ve got to take that out. You’ve got to start from scratch. You have to bring some balance and equality. There has to be a consistency across the board to the results in the disciplinary area and I don’t think over the last couple of years we’ve seen tremendous consistency. And I don’t mean that in any negative way towards (Campbell) because he works very hard at it. He cares deeply and it’s not an easy job and I’m not talking about any individual case. I just think we should take that burden off his shoulders and put it in the hands of some trusted third party hockey person who can make those calls and do it in a manner that can be consistent across the board.
Hockeycentral: You mentioned expansion. Europe has been a popular subject. You’re on the record saying five to 10 years. Has the league talked to the NHLPA about this European issue?
KELLY: We talk about expansion issues and we’ve talked about this issue (expansion to Europe). I think the league is not as optimistic as I am. I think that there is a thriving hockey market over there, having seen it first hand last week in Berlin and in Stockholm and Prague. You see the excitement level. You see knowledgeable hockey fans, they come in and 2,000 to 3,000 people stand, they pound the drums, buy the merchandise. They love the sport. I think it’s a natural for us. I don’t think we should close that door. I do think it’s going to take a long time because the logistics are such that to move teams over to Europe to play games, with the (jet) lag, it’s a fairly daunting issue for us to have to address. But I think there is the potential for growth there that we shouldn’t be blind to and I do believe that it’s the wave of the future.
Hockeycentral: Do you see it as maintaining 30 teams in North America and adding to those, or taking five teams from North America which aren’t doing as well and putting them over there and creating a healthy environment?
KELLY: Probably some combination. I think you could drop down a couple of teams in North America and add five or six teams overseas. You know, obviously expansion adds jobs and people would think we automatically favour expansion, but I’m not advocating expansion. I guess my view of expansion is if you’re going to expand you have to do it smartly. Do it in areas we know will strongly support the sport. They will support it by showing up to games, buying the merchandise, following the teams. And that means if you’re going to expand in North America you’ve got to think of southern Ontario. You can’t just automatically think of Kansas City or Las Vegas. You’ve got to think of southern Ontario or one other Canadian city. If you’re thinking of expanding more broadly I think you’ve got to look at some of the great European cities – Stockholm, Helsinki, Berlin, Prague would be just a few. I’d say a strong NHL here in North America has to come first. Obviously we want the existing 30 teams to survive and flourish; hopefully that happens. If it doesn’t happen and you either have to relocate a couple of teams or you decide there is sufficient basis to expand by a couple of clubs, one of those first places to consider has to be southern Ontario.
Hockeycentral: Alexei Cherepanov’s death is front and centre on everybody’s mind. Given what happened yesterday and the apparent lack of medical facilities and the reaction from personnel, would you talk to players who are thinking of going over there or mulling over that possibility next summer when time for free agency comes and players will sign on in the Russian super league?
KELLY: If any player came to us for advice on whether they should move from the NHL to the KHL, we would give them our honest, candid view. And we’d certainly, to the extent that they haven’t heard about this terrible tragedy, we would certainly point out to them that you’re not going to get any better facilities, medical attention, emergency treatment than you will find here in North America or in the NHL. I mean, from what I’m hearing from the early media reports, what happened over there is very, very unfortunate. Perhaps there wasn’t an ambulance immediately available, perhaps there wasn’t a defibrillator or other medical attention that perhaps might have saved this young guy’s life and all of that is very unfortunate. So yes, we would tell players that is one factor that you ought to think of in a range of factors.
Hockeycentral: There’s an economic downturn bordering on a recession in North America right now. Are you prepared for the salary cap to go down? What might that mean?
KELLY: Well, I’m an optimist by nature and I don’t think the economic downturn is going to affect our league as dramatically as people might speculate. We’ve been in a growth pattern for the last few years; the early numbers in the season as far as season ticket sales, individual tickets, corporate sponsorships, television rights deals in the light look very strong. I think we’ll be able the weather the storm pretty well in the NHL. If we’re wrong about that and we see some prolonged economic downturn and some softening in our market, you know, look the players are business people, they’re smart. They understand that if the revenues in the sport drop, that if a couple million dollars or a couple hundred million dollars that may affect the cap, that’s the nature of the system that we’ve signed on to and will live by until the end of the deal which is again maybe one year, maybe three years.
Hockeycentral: If the cap’s going to go down, it’s probably going to be at this time, with what we’re seeing from the markets and the credit crunch in the United States. Would it make sense that you opt out of this deal now and negotiate a new CBA? Would the timing be perfect for that?
KELLY: You know, again that’s the players’ call to make. What we will do with the players is we will outline all of the pros and cons. We will talk about how does this deal work for us? If we do terminate (the CBA) what would we like to see changed? What do we believe the owners would like to see changed; we will go through all of those factors. I don’t think the economy generally is at the top of the list of issues that might cause the players to seriously consider terminating the new CBA.
Hockeycentral: Can you terminate the CBA and still avoid a work stoppage?
KELLY: You can. If you terminated the CBA you would continue to play under the terms of the current CBA unless one of three things happens: Either the owners lock the players out; the players opt to go on strike, which wouldn’t happen if we were playing under the terms; or you reach a new deal, a new CBA. So, you could continue to play indefinitely even if you terminated the deal. Again, it’s a fairly complicated issue but it’s an issue that will be brought to a head in the next three months or so and we won’t delay in informing the owners of the results. Once the players make an informed judgment, we will inform the owners and we will proceed.
Hockeycentral: Do you think it’s plausible that you terminate and still play next season without a stoppage? I don’t think realistically, on paper, you can.
KELLY: Practically speaking, if we terminated, the owners would immediately want to try to retrench in certain areas and make what they would view as improvements, perhaps lowering the percentages of revenues that the players receive in salary, things of that nature. We wouldn’t agree with a lot of those approaches by the owners. If that led the owners to lock us out, then that would be the owners call. My sense is even if the players opted to terminate, is that the players would continue to play.
Hockeycentral: You formed this advisory committee recently that to me points towards going on the offensive. Am I wrong there?
KELLY: I think you are wrong in the sense that, you know, number one I didn’t form (the committee). It was formed by the constitution prior to my arrival. I happen to think it’s a wonderful alternative to have available. It’s bringing in some sage advice and counsel in areas perhaps we don’t have that level of expertise. It’s bringing in people with strong financial backgrounds, strong labour law backgrounds with experience in actual negotiations… marketing. You know, we live in Toronto and the hockey world and we travel around with players and I think it’s a chance to the people who are outside who have a little bit different perspective and objective views to tell us if they think we are on target or off base.
Hockeycentral: Were you too closed then before?
KELLY: I just don’t think we took advantage of some of the smart people who are out there in the world or available to give advice without charging you $500 an hour. It’s a chance to get guys who feel somewhat invested in the process who care about hockey, who care about the players and who also want to see this sport succeed and they want to see the players’ rights get protected and so I’ve had a chance to speak to each of the new members of our eight-person advisory board and they all just sound like terrifically bright energetic folks.
Hockeycentral: You met with the folks at ESPN about getting hockey back on ESPN in the United States. How did that meeting go?
KELLY: It went very well. That meeting took place with the full knowledge and awareness of the NHL. You know my players have a very strong view of the fact that we need to be on television in a much larger degree in the United States then we are at the present time. We have this national TV deal with Versus. They do a terrific job of the broadcasts but they still have limitations in terms of finding them on the dial and their availabilities in hotels and sports bars of that nature. The players, particularly the veteran players who have been around for a long time, they long for the days when you could find hockey on ESPN and ESPN2 and ESPN frankly wants the NHL back on their network. You know they are very eager and interested putting us on. They would like to have a designated game of the week… They would like to do a large chunk of the playoffs as they did in the past. They would love to participate in broadcasting some of the special events, season openings, Winter Classics, things of that nature that have been done presently on NBC down in the States. So it was a very healthy dialogue with the top people at ESPN. The league is involved with that discussion as well and again there are a lot of moving parts here. There are complicated transactions and agreements that have been put in place but the parties are all talking in a very healthy way and I am hoping for the benefit of the sport we will be able to bring ESPN back into the mix within the next year or so.
Hockeycentral: What’s your feeling on contracts that are double digit in years?
KELLY: I am of two minds. I think it’s great for the players who are looking for long-term security, guys who enjoy the team they are playing for, like living in the geographic areas that they’re in and for them I think it’s a wonderful experience. On the other hand, from my standpoint as the head of the Players Association, I look at the number of guys (who have long-term deals). Right now I believe 25 per cent of the players in the NHL are playing on contracts that are four years long or longer. If that trend continues, by the time we get to the end of the CBA in 2012 we may have close to 40 to 50 per cent of our players on long-term deals. Now that will have a practical effect mainly that it will be very difficult to convince guys that have long-term deals that pay out substantial sums of money to take certain actions that might be in the best interest of the association as a whole. So I worry about that a little bit, but again at the end of the day if the players are happy, they’re making money, they’re staying with one team, their contracts are guaranteed to a large extent, then I think that is a good thing.
Hockeycentral: I know the league would like to see limits on it, maybe capped at seven years in length. Would you be willing to do something like that?
KELLY: I am for maintaining a free-market system and our players have already endured multiple caps, you know, in our existing system and we have been fortunate that it has worked out reasonably well. But no, I’m not for capping the length of contracts. Look, it’s up to the managers to manage their teams to piece together, to put on the ice a quality product, to put the right combination of players and you have to have smart GMs for that. It may be in their best interest to tie up an Alex Ovechkin for 10 years or a Sidney Crosby for an extended period of time so I don’t think we should cap it.
Hockeycentral: Have you spoken to Jim Balsillie in person?
KELLY: By telephone.
Hockeycentral: About his pursuit of a National Hockey League team?
KELLY: By telephone only.
Hockeycentral: And your impressions because he is running into road blocks all over.
KELLY: My impression of Jim was it was a delightful call. He called me. Maybe there was a little campaigning there. I think he was looking for allies and I’m an ally. I was an ally before I talked to the fellow because I think that area of southern Ontario is a natural for a franchise. I also think that Jim is a passionate hockey guy. He loves the sport. He’s a down to earth, plain-spoken guy; he’s obviously got a lot of money. I don’t know how you turn your back on someone who loves the sport, has got lots of his own money he’s willing to spend and he’s got a geographic area I think is natural for a team. So I enjoyed speaking to him and I hope to continue to talk to him.
Hockeycentral: Did you pass along your feelings to Gary Bettman?
KELLY: I did on multiple occasions, publicly and privately.
Hockeycentral: And what explanation do you get from the league about why there appears to be a reluctance to embrace this man and his money?
KELLY: At this point there hasn’t been any serious talk about relocating any of our existing teams – that’s point one – or expanding into other markets. The league’s position is that they haven’t seriously discussed expansion with the board of governors and I take that at face value. Obviously some things went on in the early relationship between Mr. Balsillie and the league which perhaps could have been handled differently, and it set people kind of off about it and I think those relationships have to be repaired. I think they should be repaired because, again, I say you’ve got someone who cares about the sport who has got significant financial resources who’s willing to commit some portions of those resources to see a successful franchise operate in the right geographic location, then I think we should pursue that.
Hockeycentral: You would be naive to believe there aren’t some franchises that could be doing much better right now. Do you see some franchises that are going to face the reality of relocation?
KELLY: Not as yet. I think that there are certainly franchises in markets that don’t have hockey as kind of a traditional sport just because of the climate. That said, all of them are working hard at it. The players have pledged to help those teams in the southern tier of the United States that have asked for our help; to involve the players to a greater degree in the marketing of the sport. At this point I have seen nothing concrete to suggest that any of the existing teams are in some kind of financial straits.
Hockeycentral: Do you see a time when visors are going to be mandatory under your leadership?
KELLY: My view of that is that any young guy who comes into our league who has been wearing a visor his entire life ought to keep it on. I’ve seen enough video clips of guys who have taken that slap shot in the face both with visor and without visor and you see the difference. We are not talking about use of visors to somehow diminish the physical nature of our sport or to remove fighting from the sport – that’s not the point. It’s basic safety and protection. I think that the guys who are playing the sport currently, and (have) for many, many years, they ought to continue to play it and if that’s without a visor that should be their choice. But I think we should protect those who come after the current crop of players, so I think young players who are used to wearing the visors should keep the visor on.
Hockeycentral: Do you see this coming to a vote though on pushing the players to vote on this as soon as next season?
KELLY: I’m not so sure it’s a voting issue. I think what we want to do is have a dialogue with the players. Again, it’s the Players Association so I want to hear feedback. I want to have intelligent discussion with the players because these are smart guys and many times I may offer my own opinion on a particular issue and then I hear some bounce-back from the players and it changes the way I view these things. From a safety perspective I favour visors personally, but it’s not my call.
Hockeycentral: What’s your gut feeling as you head out on this tour about the CBA. Do you think you opt out or do you think you give it the green light?
KELLY: Again, it’s the players call. I do talk to the players all the time, but this is an issue that until we have a full opportunity to give them all the dimensions of it and to let them ask the right questions of us, to let them view all the pros and cons, I think it would be unfair of me to try to speculate as what they will do.
Hockeycentral: Because of the backlash, even opting out, going through that again, would be enormous and the sport survived pretty well given that you lost a whole season.
KELLY: And I understand that. That said, there’s a process that has to be followed. One of the things that got this association into trouble in the past the process – it wasn’t diplomatic, it wasn’t transparent, it wasn’t open – and so we are going to do it in a very open, honest transparent way. We are going to let the players make that call.
Hockeycentral: Will those meetings be longer than this interview?
KELLY: They run about 90 minutes, actually, but I have enjoyed the interview. Thank you.